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Wei Yan

Wei Yan
A Qing dynasty portrait of Wei Yan.
General of Shu Han
Born (Unknown)
Died 234
Traditional Chinese 魏延
Simplified Chinese 魏延
Pinyin Wèi Yán
Wade–Giles Wei Yen
Courtesy name Wenchang (simplified Chinese: 文长; traditional Chinese: 文長; pinyin: Wéncháng; Wade–Giles: Wen-ch'ang)

Wei Yan (died 234),[1] courtesy name Wenchang, was a military general of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. Originally a foot soldier under the warlord Liu Bei (the founding emperor of Shu), Wei Yan rose through the ranks and became a general when Liu Bei invaded Yi Province (益州; covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) in 211.[1] His talent and performance during battles helped him to become a prominent figure in the Shu military in a short period of time. He was later appointed as the Administrator of Hanzhong commandery[notes 1] and as an Area Commander in 219.[1] Between 228 and 234, he participated actively in the Northern Expeditions led by the Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang against Shu's rival state, Cao Wei. After Zhuge Liang's death in 234, Wei Yan was killed by another Shu general, Ma Dai, for alleged treason.


  • Early and mid-career 1
  • Northern Expeditions 2
  • Ziwu Valley Plan 3
    • Analysis 3.1
  • Death 4
    • Analysis 4.1
  • Wei Yan Shrine 5
  • In fiction 6
  • Modern references 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10

Early and mid-career

Wei Yan was from Yiyang commandery (義陽郡; around present-day Tongbai County, Nanyang, Henan) in Jing Province. As one of Liu Bei's personal retainers, he followed Liu Bei into Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) in 212 to attack the warlord Liu Zhang. He had many military accomplishments and was assigned as a "General of the Standard" (牙門將軍). When Liu Bei became "King of Hanzhong" in 219 after his victory over his rival Cao Cao in the Hanzhong Campaign, he selected Wei Yan as the general who would guard Hanzhong and then honoured him with the title "General Who Suppresses the North" (鎮北將軍). This was despite Zhang Fei being considered by the majority and himself to be the likely candidate for the position, which assumed the imminent military responsibility to resist invasion from Cao Cao. When Wei Yan was nominated by Liu Bei, the court was shocked. Liu Bei then asked Wei Yan in front of the mass how would he serve his new post, wherein Wei confidently replied, "If Cao Cao mustered all his forces and invaded, let me assist my lord to repel the enemies; if an Assistant-General came with 100,000 troops, let me engulf them for my lord."[2] During his tenure, Wei Yan borrowed the concept of "double gates" from the ancient text Zhou Yi (周易) and laid numerous camps along the outskirt and trail exits linking to Hanzhong. His defence mechanism was very effective in driving the enemy out, and his arrangement would be adopted by those who later succeeded his post.

In 221, Liu Bei founded the state of Shu Han and became its first emperor. He died in 223 and was succeeded by his son, Liu Shan. In that year, Wei Yan was enfeoffed by Liu Shan as a "Marquis of a Chief Village" (都亭侯). About four years later, Shu's chancellor Zhuge Liang launched the first of a series of campaigns to attack Shu's rival state Cao Wei, and Wei Yan was called into battle. Wei Yan supervised the front division, and he held the appointments of Major under the Chancellor (丞相司馬) and Inspector of Liang Province (涼州刺史).[3] Wei Yan treated his soldiers well and was known for his bravery. However, he was also boastful of his talents and his peers tended to avoid him. The minister Yang Yi, who was a close aide of Zhuge Liang, made no concession to Wei Yan, and Wei was extremely resentful of him.[4]

Northern Expeditions

A illustration of Wei Yan from a Qing dynasty edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It shows Wei Yan (far left) trapping Sima Yi and his sons in Shangfang Valley (上方谷) during one of the Northern Expeditions.

Wei Yan participated in most – if not all – of the Northern Expeditions against the state of Cao Wei. However, he was disappointed with his superior Zhuge Liang because the latter employed Ma Su as the vanguard for the first campaign, which ended up in a total disaster after the Shu defeat at the Battle of Jieting. During the second campaign, Wei Yan suggested to Zhuge Liang to take an alternative route to attack Chang'an, a strategic city in Wei, but Zhuge rejected his plan. Zhuge Liang then led the Shu army to besiege Chencang, where they could only lament upon the staunch defence of the 1,000 defenders commanded by the Wei general Hao Zhao.

In late 230, when the Cao Wei regime launched a counteroffensive with a sizeable army, Zhuge Liang sent Wei Yan and Wu Yi as military attachés to join forces with the Qiang tribes in the northwest to harass the Wei army's rear. Wei Yan swiftly led a mixed cavalry-infantry force to his destination, and he sold the famous Chengdu silk brocades to the Qiang people in return for their military support, as well as for horses and weapons. From the very beginning, the Cao Wei attack encountered problems: heavy rains continued for more than 30 days, which rendered that the narrow valleys impassable, while the Wei general Zhang He was threatened in the west by Wei Yan's pincer movement towards his rear. After one and a half months of little progress, the ill-fated campaign was terminated. However, the Wei generals Fei Yao and Guo Huai wanted to earn some merits before their retreat, so they attacked Wei Yan at Yangxi (陽谿), but Wei Yan inflicted a crushing defeat on the enemy. Thus, the Shu force behind the enemy lines was able to make a prudence dictated return to Hanzhong. Wei Yan was then promoted to "Front Military Adviser Senior General Who Attacks the West" (前軍師征西大將軍), and he also received the title "Marquis of Nanzheng" (南鄭侯).[5]

During the fourth Northern Expedition, Zhuge Liang sent Wei Yan, Wu Ban and Gao Xiang to lead troops in three columns to counter the Wei commander Sima Yi, who was leading a frontal assault from the central main road. They resisted a Wei army personally led by Sima Yi outside the fortress and scored a major victory over the enemy, killing 3,000 Wei armoured soldiers and seizing 5,000 sets of armour and 3,100 crossbows.[6]

Ziwu Valley Plan

Each time Wei Yan followed Zhuge Liang to battle, he would request to command a separate detachment of about 10,000 men and take a different route and rendezvous with Zhuge's main force at Tong Pass (present-day Tongguan County, Shaanxi), per an earlier strategy used by Han Xin during the Chu–Han Contention in the 200s BCE. Zhuge Liang rejected the plan, and Wei Yan felt that Zhuge was a coward and complained that his talent was not put to good use.[7]

When Chen Shou compiled the unofficial works on the history of Shu to write the Sanguozhi, he only mentioned that Wei Yan suggested to Zhuge Liang to split the Shu army into two, and the two forces would take two different routes and rendezvous at Tong Pass.[notes 2]

Wei Yan's reasoning for his Ziwu Valley Plan was recorded in the historical text Weilue, which was then added as annotations to his biography in the Sanguozhi. It stated: Wei Yan received intelligence that the defender of the strategic city Chang'an, Xiahou Mao, was cowardly and incompetent. Thus, he reasoned, it would be easy for him to take 5,000 troops (and another 5,000 to carry supplies) across the Qin Mountains via the Ziwu Valley (子午谷) and into Chang'an. Wei Yan estimated that he would reach Chang'an in ten days and scare Xiahou Mao into flight, leaving the grain in Chang'an's storehouses for Shu's taking. There, Wei Yan's force can wait for Zhuge Liang's main army to take the safer road out of Xie Valley (斜谷) and rendezvous in Chang'an. In this way, the region west of Xianyang could be conquered in one movement.[8]

When the Cao Wei court received intelligence about Wei Yan's Ziwu Valley Plan, the emperor Cao Rui immediately removed Xiahou Mao from his military command in Chang'an and reassigned him to be an Imperial Secretary (尚書) in the capital.[9]


The reason as to why Zhuge Liang rejected Wei Yan's plan remained dubious due to the absence of details in historical records. However, it is generally believed that Zhuge Liang considered Wei Yan's plan to be dangerous and he preferred to travel along the flat roads so that Longyou (隴右) could be taken easily. He was certain that his plan would work out without any worry, so he did not accept Wei Yan's plan.

The viability of Wei Yan's Ziwu Valley Plan (before Xiahou Mao's reassignment) became a subject of debate among historians over the centuries. However, there is no doubt that Zhuge Liang had forfeited a chance to execute Wei Yan's plan, regardless of whether it would have turned out to be successful or not. When Zhuge Liang's own strategy during the second Northern Expedition failed, Wei Yan sighed that his talent was not employed to its full potential.


An illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It shows Wei Yan (far left) ruining Zhuge Liang's ritual to extend his life at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains.

In 234, Zhuge Liang launched the sixth northern expedition against Cao Wei, with Wei Yan leading the vanguard force. When he became critically ill during the stalemate at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains, he gave secret orders to Yang Yi, Fei Yi and Jiang Wei to lead the Shu army on a retreat back to Shu after his death, with Wei Yan in charge of the rearguard and Jiang Wei to follow behind. If Wei Yan refused to follow the order, they were to retreat without him. When Zhuge Liang died, news of his death were kept secret. Yang Yi sent Fei Yi to meet Wei Yan and test his intention.[10]

Wei Yan said to Fei Yi, "Although the Chancellor (Zhuge Liang) is dead, I am still around. The officials serving in the Chancellor's Office may bring his body back (to Chengdu) for burial, but I should remain behind to lead the army to attack the enemy. Must we abandon our mission just because of the death of one man? Besides, who am I, Wei Yan, to submit to Yang Yi's command and lead the rearguard?"[11]

Wei Yan and Fei Yi then took command of the troops left behind. Fei Yi also wrote a letter, which was signed by both of them and would be read out to all the officers. He offered to return to the main camp and help Wei Yan explain the situation to Yang Yi. He also said that Yang Yi was a civil official who was less experienced in handling military affairs, so Wei Yan stood a chance of becoming the new commander. Wei Yan then let Fei Yi leave, but he immediately regretted his decision and went after Fei, but could not catch up with him in time. He then sent his subordinate to meet Yang Yi and the others, but was shocked to discover that the various encampments were preparing to retreat in accordance with Zhuge Liang's final orders. Wei Yan wanted to continue the campaign against Cao Wei even though Zhuge Liang had died, so he turned furious when he heard of the retreat. He intended to block the Shu forces from retreating, so he led his force towards the south – ahead of the main army under Yang Yi's command – and sealed the return route by destroying the gallery roads leading back to Shu.[12]

Wei Yan and Yang Yi separately wrote memorials to the Shu imperial court and accused each other of treason. Their memorials arrived in Chengdu on the same day. The Shu emperor Liu Shan asked the ministers Dong Yun and Jiang Wan for their opinions. Both of them sided with Yang Yi and felt that Wei Yan's actions were suspicious. In the meantime, Yang Yi ordered his men to cut down trees to rebuild the gallery roads, and his troops marched day and night to catch up with Wei Yan. Wei Yan arrived at the southern valley first and ordered his soldiers to attack Yang Yi. Yang Yi sent Wang Ping to resist Wei Yan. Wang Ping shouted at Wei Yan, "His lordship (Zhuge Liang) had just died and his body had yet to turn cold, and now you dare to do something like this!" Wei Yan's men knew that their commander was in the wrong so they deserted.[13]

Wei Yan was left with only his son(s) and a few followers. They fled towards Hanzhong. Yang Yi ordered Ma Dai to give chase. Ma Dai caught up with Wei Yan, decapitated him, brought his head back, and threw it in front of Yang Yi. Yang Yi trampled on Wei Yan's head and said, "You inferior slave! Now, can you still commit evil?" Wei Yan's family members and close relatives were also executed. Before Wei Yan's death, Jiang Wan had led divisions of the imperial guards from Chengdu to deal with the conflict. They had travelled for about 10 li (about a quarter of a mile) when they received news of Wei Yan's death, after which they returned to Chengdu.[14]


Chen Shou, who wrote Wei Yan's biography in the Sanguozhi, analysed Wei Yan's death as such:

Wei Yan's initial intention was not to head north to surrender to Cao Wei. Instead, he wanted to retreat back to the south. He desired to kill Yang Yi and the others who disagreed with him. Although the officers held differing opinions, he strongly believed that they would generally agree to him becoming Zhuge Liang's successor. That was his true intention; he was not thinking of rebelling.[15]

A similar, but somewhat different and more detailed account exists in the historical text Weilue, which states:

When Zhuge Liang was ill, he told Wei Yan and the others, "After I die, all of you should be cautious in setting up defences, but do not return here." Wei Yan was then ordered to take Zhuge Liang's command and to not reveal news about Zhuge's death. He did as he was instructed after Zhuge Liang died. When the Shu forces reached Baokou (襃口), Zhuge Liang's death was announced and a funeral was held. Zhuge Liang's Chief Clerk (長史), Yang Yi, was on bad terms with Wei Yan all this while, and he feared that he would be harmed when he heard that Wei Yan had taken charge of the armies. He spread rumours that Wei Yan was planning to surrender to Cao Wei, and then led the soldiers to attack Wei Yan. Wei Yan had no intention of defecting to Cao Wei, so he did not put up resistance and retreated instead, but Yang Yi and his men caught up with him and killed him.[16]

Pei Songzhi, who added the Weilue account to Wei Yan's biography and annotated the Sanguozhi, commented on the Weilue account as follows:

I feel that this account was derived from hearsay in the enemy state (Cao Wei) and may not be as reliable as compared to the original account (by Chen Shou). [17]

Wei Yan's death was explained in political terms in Injustice to Wei Yan (魏延的千古奇冤), a neoteric article by Zhu Ziyan, a history professor from Shanghai University. In the article, Zhu wrote that Zhuge Liang personally appointed Jiang Wan, Fei Yi and Jiang Wei to be his successors, but Wei Yan's appointments and contributions were greater than those of any of them at the time. Zhuge Liang ostracised Wei Yan and cracked down on him because he wanted to eliminate Wei Yan as a possible obstacle to his appointed successors.[18]

Wei Yan Shrine

A Wei Yan Shrine (魏延祠) is located in Baique Village, Sanquan Township, Zitong County, Mianyang, Sichuan. In front of the shrine flows a Wei Family River (魏家河). On the plains east of the river, there once stood a Wei Family River Temple (魏家河廟), which had three stone tablets in front of it. One of the stone tablets bore the words "Wei Yan once led soldiers and was stationed here." According to legend, in 231, during the fourth Shu Northern Expedition against Wei, Zhuge Liang ordered Wei Yan to lead a separate force to station south of the Wei Family River. In memory of the incident, the locals built the Wei Family River Temple beside the river and a small bridge called "General Bridge" (將軍橋). The stone tablet was lost when the temple was destroyed in 1968; only the bridge remained, but it is usually submerged until the low tide in June or July. The Wei Yan Shrine was initially demolished by the government but was rebuilt in 1995. A statue of Wei Yan stands in the main hall of the shrine.[19]

In fiction

Wei Yan appears as a character in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, which romanticises the historical events leading to, and during the Three Kingdoms period.

See the following for some fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms involving Wei Yan:

Modern references

Wei Yan is featured as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series. He also appears in Koei's Dynasty Tactics 2.

See also


  1. ^ This post had previously been held by Lu Su. See Passage G of Jian'an 15 in the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang; de Crespigny (2004).
  2. ^ Not much details were recorded due to the fact that when Zhuge Liang served as chancellor-regent in Shu, he banned the position of Historian – an official whose task was to maintain records of historical events – in the Shu imperial court. When Chen Shou attempted to compile the histories of Shu, he lamented on Zhuge Liang's policy of banning official historical records. It is noteworthy that Shu had 40,000 civil servants when it was conquered by Wei in 263, but out of these 40,000, none of them held the appointment of Historian. Quote from Sanguozhi vol. 32: (又國不置史,注記無官,是以行事多遺,灾異靡書。諸葛亮雖達於為政,凡此之類,猶有未周焉。)


  1. ^ a b c de Crespigny (2007), p. 857.
  2. ^ (魏延字文長,義陽人也。以部曲隨先主入蜀,數有戰功,遷牙門將軍。先主為漢中王,遷治成都,當得重將以鎮漢川,衆論以為必在張飛,飛亦以心自許。先主乃拔延為督漢中鎮遠將軍,領漢中太守,一軍盡驚。先主大會羣臣,問延曰:「今委卿以重任,卿居之欲云何?」延對曰:「若曹操舉天下而來,請為大王拒之;偏將十萬之衆至,請為大王吞之。」先主稱善,衆咸壯其言。先主踐尊號,進拜鎮北將軍。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  3. ^ (建興元年,封都亭侯。 ... 五年,諸葛亮駐漢中,更以延為督前部,領丞相司馬、涼州刺史, ...) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  4. ^ (延旣善養士卒,勇猛過人,又性矜高,當時皆避下之。唯楊儀不假借延,延以為至忿,有如水火。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  5. ^ (八年,使延西入羌中,魏後將軍費瑤、雍州刺史郭淮與延戰于陽谿,延大破淮等,遷為前軍師征西大將軍,假節,進封南鄭侯。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  6. ^ (漢晉春秋曰: ... 五月辛巳,乃使張郃攻无當監何平於南圍,自案中道向亮。亮使魏延、高翔、吳班赴拒,大破之,獲甲首三千級、玄鎧五千領、角弩三千一百張,宣王還保營。) Hanjin Chunqiu annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
  7. ^ (延每隨亮出,輙欲請兵萬人,與亮異道會于潼關,如韓信故事,亮制而不許。延常謂亮為怯,歎恨己才用之不盡。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  8. ^ (魏略曰:夏侯楙為安西將軍,鎮長安,亮於南鄭與羣下計議,延曰:「聞夏侯楙少,主壻也,怯而無謀。今假延精兵五千,負糧五千,直從褒中出,循秦嶺而東,當子午而北,不過十日可到長安。楙聞延奄至,必乘船逃走。長安中惟有御史、京兆太守耳,黃門邸閣與散民之穀足周食也。比東方相合聚,尚二十許日,而公從斜谷來,必足以達。如此,則一舉而咸陽以西可定矣。」亮以為此縣危,不如安從坦道,可以平取隴右,十全必克而無虞,故不用延計。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  9. ^ (魏略曰: ... 楙性無武略,而好治生。至太和二年,明帝西征,人有白楙者,遂召還為尚書。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 9.
  10. ^ (秋,亮病困,密與長史楊儀、司馬費禕、護軍姜維等作身歿之後退軍節度,令延斷後,姜維次之;若延或不從命,軍便自發。亮適卒,祕不發喪,儀令禕往揣延意指。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  11. ^ (延曰:「丞相雖亡,吾自見在。府親官屬便可將喪還葬,吾自當率諸軍擊賊,云何以一人死廢天下之事邪?且魏延何人,當為楊儀所部勒,作斷後將乎!」) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  12. ^ (因與禕共作行留部分,令禕手書與己連名,告下諸將。禕紿延曰:「當為君還解楊長史,長史文吏,稀更軍事,必不違命也。」禕出門馳馬而去,延尋悔,追之已不及矣。延遣人覘儀等,遂使欲案亮成規,諸營相次引軍還。延大怒,纔儀未發,率所領徑先南歸,所過燒絕閣道。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  13. ^ (延、儀各相表叛逆,一日之中,羽檄交至。後主以問侍中董允、留府長史蔣琬,琬、允咸保儀疑延。儀等槎山通道,晝夜兼行,亦繼延後。 ... 延先至,據南谷口,遣兵逆擊儀等,儀等令何平在前禦延。平叱延先登曰:「公亡,身尚未寒,汝輩何敢乃爾!」延士衆知曲在延,莫為用命,軍皆散。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  14. ^ (延獨與其子數人逃亡,奔漢中。儀遣馬岱追斬之,致首於儀,儀起自踏之,曰:「庸奴!復能作惡不?」遂夷延三族。 ... 初,蔣琬率宿衞諸營赴難北行,行數十里,延死問至,乃旋。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  15. ^ (原延意不北降魏而南還者,但欲除殺儀等。平日諸將素不同,兾時論必當以代亮。本指如此。不便背叛。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  16. ^ (魏略曰:諸葛亮病,謂延等云:「我之死後,但謹自守,慎勿復來也。」令延攝行己事,密持喪去。延遂匿之,行至襃口,乃發喪。亮長史楊儀宿與延不和,見延攝行軍事,懼為所害,乃張言延欲舉衆北附,遂率其衆攻延。延本無此心,不戰軍走,追而殺之。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  17. ^ (臣松之以為此蓋敵國傳聞之言,不得與本傳爭審。) Pei Songzhi's annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  18. ^ (诸葛亮亲自指定了接班人,蒋琬、费袆、姜维。但是魏延的官职、功劳要比他们个人大得多,诸葛亮打击魏延,排挤魏延是为他的接班人扫除障碍,去掉绊脚石。) Zhu Ziyan. Injustice to Wei Yan (魏延的千古奇冤).
  19. ^ "镇远将军魏延祠 [Shrine of General Wei Yan]". 中华魏氏网 [Chinese Wei Family Website] (in Chinese). 5 January 2012. Retrieved 21 February 2015. 

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